Conflict In The Kitchen

Edwin Deakin (British-American, 1838 - 1923) Kitchen Corner, 1883

Kitchens are wonderfully useful for writers. Of all the rooms in the house, the kitchen offers props for fleshing out body language beats. It offers implements that might kill you, as well as food that might sustain you. People naturally gather in kitchens, even people who despise each other.

For a wonderful visual example of how a benign kitchen can be something truly sinister, see the opening credits to TV show Dexter, in which a sociopathic murderer gets up, shaves, cuts himself, then makes himself breakfast. However, the slo-mo and the close ups turn this into a sequence I can barely watch.

Not surprisingly, I find far more examples of kitchens in work by women. Some writers really enjoy the kitchen as a setting — Alice Munro is one such writer.

KITCHEN NUMBER ONE: “QUEENIE” BY ALICE MUNRO

I looked at the rusty-bottomed bread tin swiped too often by the dishcloth, and the pots sitting on the stove, washed but not put away, and the motto supplied by Fairholme Dairy: The Lord is the Heart of Our House. All these things stupidly waiting for the day to begin and not knowing that it had been hollowed out by catastrophe.

This contrasts with Queenie’s new kitchen, after she elopes:

The kitchen was the nicest room, though too dark. Queenie had ivy growing up around the window over the sink, and she had wooden spoons sticking up out of a pretty, handleless mug, just the way Mrs Vorguilla used to have them. The living-room had the piano in it, the same piano that had been in the other living-room. There was one armchair and a bookshelf made with bricks and planks and a record-player and a lot of records sitting on the floor. No television. No walnut rocking-chairs or tapestry curtains. Not even the floor-lamp with the Japanese scenes on its parchment shade. Yet all these things had been moved to Toronto, on a snowy day.

Alice Munro, “Queenie

KITCHEN NUMBER TWO: “FICTION” BY ALICE MUNRO

In the following scene, the reader is reminded that Joyce now feels old. The devilled eggs symbolise this change: once popular party foods of the 80s, by the late 90s, nobody was eating eggs anymore.

They are washing the dishes in the kitchen. Joyce and Tommy and the new friend, Jay. The party is over. People have departed with hugs and kisses and hearty cries, some bearing platters of food that Joyce has no room for in the refrigerator. Wilted salads and cream tarts and devilled eggs have been thrown out. Few of the devilled eggs were eaten anyway. Old-fashioned. Too much cholesterol.

“Too bad, they were a lot of work. They probably reminded people of church suppers,” says Joyce, tipping a platterful into the garbage.

“My granma used to make them,” says Jay. These are the first words he has addressed to Joyce, and she sees Tommy looking grateful. She feels grateful herself, even if she has been put in the category of his grandmother.

“We ate several and they were good,” says Tommy. He and Jay have worked for at least half an hour alongside her, gathering glasses and plates and cutlery that were scattered all over the lawn and verandah and throughout the house, even in the most curious places such as flowerpots and under sofa cushions. The boys—she thinks of them as boys—have stacked the dishwasher more skillfully than she in her worn-out state could ever manage, and prepared the hot soapy water and cool rinse water in the sinks for the glasses.

“We could just save them for the next load in the dishwasher,” Joyce has said, but Tommy has said no.

“You wouldn’t think of putting them in the dishwater if you weren’t out of your right mind with all you had to do today.” Jay washes and Joyce dries and Tommy puts away. He still remembers where everything goes in this house.

Fiction” by Alice Munro

KITCHEN NUMBER FOUR: “JAKARTA” BY ALICE MUNRO

Sonje’s kitchen is described via the viewpoint of an older male visitor, so Munro is channeling a male when she points out what he would notice:

The kitchen was another big room, which the cupboards and appliances didn’t properly fill. The floor was gray and black tiles — or perhaps black and white tiles, the white made gray by dirty scrub water. […] As they passed through the kitchen Sonje had put the kettle on for tea. Now she sat down in one of the chairs as if she too was glad to settle. […] The telephone was rining. A disturbing, loud, old-fashioned ring. It sounded as if it was just outside in the hall, but Sonje hurried back to the kitchen.

Jakarta” by Alice Munro

KITCHEN NUMBER FOUR: “PINE” BY ROBIN BLACK

This description opens the short story. The kitchen is used to introduce us to the first person narrator (our viewpoint character) and to Heidi, the focal character. This is an example of a character sketch—really two character sketches—using choices about kitchen design as a point of difference between them. So, a different kind of conflict:

Heidi’s kitchen floor is marble tile, a hard and unforgiving platform for her clumsy gait. If it were me, I think, watching her, I would have put down pine—soft, uneven planks of gentle pine to absorb the step-clump, step-clump sound of my own feet. My foot, and then the pause that would be seared into my soul, that sad and silent pause. And then my other foot.

If it were me, I would have built a smaller kitchen too, I’m sure, a room of easy reaches and rolling carts. But Heidi, with her latest-model leg—her fourth she told me, since losing the original—Heidi is more defiant than I, perhaps. More feisty. Or possibly just more in denial. And so her kitchen is bowling-alley large. Stadium large. Super-dome large. There are two cooktops, two dishwashers, two ovens, and a microwave. There are appliances so modern that their function is indiscernible, and these marvels are spread across three islands all in all, an archipelago of kitchen design, which Heidi navigates with great goodwill, cheerful as she clumps across each expanse.

KITCHEN NUMBER FIVE: A COUNTRY WHERE YOU ONCE LIVED BY ROBIN BLACK

The father in this short story is seeing his estranged daughter for the first time in four years. He focuses on the knife in her hands, which makes him feel uncomfortable. Or is it really the knife that’s making him uncomfortable?

“We’re not there yet.” Zoe is peeling a potato — with a knife — so rapidly Jeremy is fearful for her hands. “But we’ll get there. We do have bills to pay, and designer veggies are like gold.”

“I’m looking forward to hearing all about it,” Jeremy says. His gaze is fixed on the course of her blade, on the flying strips of skin. “I’m looking forward to seeing it all.”

“I’ll give you a tour,” Colin says. “The whole operation.”

“Not today, though.” Zoe’s potato falls into a ceramic bowl: another takes its place in her hands. “Dinner’s in just a little while. I hope everyone’s hungry.”

“A Country Where You Once Lived” by Robin Black

KITCHEN NUMBER SIX: WIFEY REDUX BY KEVIN BARRY

In this short story, Kevin Barry’s main character — a middle-aged dad of a teenage daughter — is coming to terms with the fact he is no longer young himself. His own teenager is an unwelcome reminder of lost youth. Although he has everything he could possibly want — a nice middle class house, the works — now all he wants is to be young again.

Note how Barry paints a portrait of a well-off family — the food they eat, the alcohol of choice, the ‘island counter’ — these details turn the main character’s life into a caricature of middle class success, thereby questioning the very notion of success.

A sunny Saturday, heaven-sent, in peejays — it should have been perfection. Saoirse was sitting at the island counter, trembling, as she ate pinhead porridge with acai fruit and counted off the hours till she could start glugging back the ice-cold Pinot Grigio. I was scraping an anti-death spread the colour of Van Gogh’s sunflowers onto a piece of nine-grain artisanal toast. Ellie was vexing between flushes of crimson rage and sobbing fits and making a sound like a lung-diseased porpoise.

“Wifey Redux” by Kevin Barry

KITCHEN NUMBER SEVEN: ITHACA IN MY MIND BY PETER TEMPLE

The main character in this short story is a self-important writer, annoyed after being fired by his literary agent. We see him take his annoyance out on everyone and everything. Here, it’s the toaster (I think it’s a dig at the Thermomix and similar kitchenware). I like this example because there can be conflict in the kitchen even when a character stands alone in it:

He made toast in the machine she had bought: five hundred and forty dollars. The bloody thing had twelve settings. Numbers one to six barely warmed the bread, seven and upwards charred it just as effectively as some twenty-five dollar piece of shit from Target.

“Ithaca In My Mind” by Peter Temple
Cover by Jessie Willcox Smith; lower left bottom says H114; original is faded and watermarked; Bell, Louise Price, “Kitchen Fun- Teaches children to cook successfully”, Harter Publishing Co, Cleveland, Ohio, ©1932, 28 pages
World War 2 poster turn that gas down
World War 2 poster
Stevan Dohanos (1907 – 1994) Social realism art dishes
Stevan Dohanos (1907 – 1994) Social realism art dishes
Robert Fawcett kitchen
Robert Fawcett illustration

FURTHER READING

Painting in header: Edwin Deakin (British-American, 1838 – 1923) Kitchen Corner, 1883

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Zoomorphism and Chremamorphism

man surrounded by rock pigeons

In literature, an object with human characteristics is called ‘personification‘.

Granting an animal human-like characteristics is called ‘anthropomorphism‘. (Anthropo = human being, as in ‘anthropology’. ‘Morph’ = change.)

Both personification and anthropomorphism are types of metaphors.

But what do you call it when it’s the other way round? i.e., when a human being is compared to an animal by virtue of animal characteristics? Reverse personification? Animalification?

Turns out the word for ‘reverse anthropomorphism’ is zoomorphism. But because this word isn’t used much, people make up their own terminology, independently of one another.

Someone on Urban Dictionary noted the words fantasy lovers have come up with:

ANTHRO

An animal with human-like characteristics. A human with animal-like characteristics can also be called an anthro, but technically they are not. An anthro is, technically, an animal that can: a) walk upright, b) talk, or talk somewhat (AKA has human vocal chords), c) has human features (i.e. a centaur, half human, half horse), d) has the bone structure of a human, with some of its animal counterpart (i.e. a cat-anthro that although looks like a human, can jump like a cat). These characteristics separate anthros from humans with cat ears and tail (or something like that).

Continue reading “Zoomorphism and Chremamorphism”

A Country Where You Once Lived by Robin Black Analysis

Thomas J. Banks - A Country House, in an Extensive Landscape

“A Country Where You Once Lived” by Robin Black (2010) is a great example of a short story in which the present story plays out alongside the backstory of a stand-out inflection point (“fulcrum”) which happened 13 years earlier. Two separate time periods merge into one. Whenever this happens in a story we are reminded that no single moment in time stands in isolation — the present is inevitably affected by the past.

The symbolism of trains, and their connection to the irreversible march of time, and the unforgiving nature of bad moral decisions, is fully mined in “A Country Where You Once Lived”.

RE-VISIONED CLASSIC TALE

Robin Black’s short story is also a great mentor text if you’re creating a narrative with very loose links to a classic tale, in this case  the legend of The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

  • The main character is symbolically named Jeremy Piper. When an author does this a decision must be made: To point it out in the text or let it be? Ironically, failing to point it out can make it seem trite. Here, Black is sure to point it out: Jeremy imagines the papers having fun with his name were he wrongly convicted of killing his own daughter: Tried Piper Lured Own Daughter.
  • There are children in the story (foetuses) which disappear mysteriously (a series of miscarriages). Zoe, Piper’s daughter, also disappears mysteriously in the backstory.
  • Jeremy’s subsequent estrangement with his daughter is its own kind of child loss, which juxtaposes nicely with the present loss of unborn, unseen children.
  • Jeremy is a scientist by profession. Though rats are not mentioned — they are referred to as ‘animals’ I deduce he performs his mushroom experiments on rats. (Mushrooms are themselves very ‘fairytale’.)
  • Like the Pied Piper, Jeremy is very good at what he does, well-known (within his field).
  • The man Jeremy imagines has abducted his daughter and done vile things is eventually proven to have not existed. There was certainly no Pied Piper Man if children disappeared from the town of Hamelin in the Middle Ages. The man is the representation of whatever it was — plague, crusade, whatever.
  • When Zoe comes home she has transmogrified, as if ‘she has been drained of some essential human moisture’. (She has turned into a kind of rat.)

So while various disparate elements are taken from The Pied Piper legend, it’s as if they’ve been scattered on the table like pick-up-stix and reordered into something completely new.  However, the palimpsest of the legend is still there, and the two stories are thematically linked — both are about the loss of children (and grandchildren).

THE AUTHOR READS

Below, Robin Black reads about the first third of “A Country Where You Once Lived”. First she explains that the publisher felt strongly that the collection should open with “The Guide”, which happens to be the only story with a man as main character. Robin Black felt strongly that it was strange to open with the story about the man when all her other stories were about women, so to offset this unease she did something a little perplexing to me… she wrote another story about a man! “A Country Where You Once Lived” is the only story written ‘for the book’.  The publishers were happy to wait for it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wt_ig6q-vyY

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A COUNTRY WHERE YOU ONCE LIVED”

SHORTCOMING

Jeremy didn’t cope very well psychologically when his daughter ran away thirteen years ago. (I’m sure the number thirteen would’ve been chosen because of its association with bad luck.) The third person narrator of this story gives no indication that he is reflective to the point where he can see his own part in why she ran away — he has ripped her away from her friends at a time in her life when friends mean everything to her.

His response? To move back to America without his wife and daughter and to start again with a younger woman. His shortcoming is that he still needs some kind of connection with his original wife and daughter.

The reason he finally visits his daughter is to avoid disappointing his new girlfriend, who is probably worried about their fractured relationship for what it might say about him.

DESIRE

Jeremy is in England to meet his daughter’s fiancee. That’s his conscious desire. As part of that, he is hoping to reestablish some intimacy with his daughter. Later, we are told by the narrator that he has come for some forgiveness. The gradual revelation of his desires is designed to match his own gradual realisation regarding what his exact motivation even is.

OPPONENT

Zoe is no longer really an opponent — she has matured to the point where a reconnection looks likely.

Jeremy’s opposition mainly comes in the form of his first wife, Zoe’s mother, who is present in Zoe’s life to the point where there’s not really room for Jeremy — or rather, the degree of her caring and emotional labour makes his absence all the more glaring.

PLAN

Jeremy’s plan is simply to arrive at her house in the country and stay for a while.

Robin Black makes use of a ‘real world fantasy portal’ to signal that Jeremy is now entering a foreign world — not foreign because it’s fantasy but foreign to him because his family is no longer his family:

On either side, anywhere Jeremy looks, vast fields stretch, acres and acres of fields blanketing gentle hills. There are at least three barns in sight and a large half-timbered house right ahead. It is as though they’ve gone through one of those magical gates in children’s stories, into a universe that couldn’t possibly fit into the space concealing it.

BIG STRUGGLE

Unfortunately, his first night coincides with another of Zoe’s miscarriages. She is whisked away.

But the battle scene takes place on the train between Jeremy and his first wife, Cathleen, who is concealing something. She is also unmasked in the very same scene — she is heading back to see Zoe, and the pair of them don’t want Jeremy there, though didn’t want to say.

ANAGNORISIS

This unmasking forms the basis of Jeremy’s self revelation — that he is now peripheral to his first wife and daughter, and this is the way it will remain. He has no choice but to return to America and form a new life with his new partner.

But he isn’t sad about this. Given the sad nature of the story, his (ironic) Anagnorisis is that he’s actually pretty happy to be moving on.

NEW SITUATION

By re-partnering with the much younger woman and living across the Atlantic from Zoe and Cathleen, Jeremy has given away his opportunity to be part of a multi-generational family in later life. Even if he does start a new family with his 32-year-old girlfriend, he’ll not live long enough to see the children of his younger children.

In the same way, the people of Hamelin lost an entire generation of children. For them it was the end of their society, but Jeremy can still eke out a nice life for himself if he can mentally move on.

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Header image Thomas J. Banks – A Country House, in an Extensive Landscape

Pine a Short Story by Robin Black Analysis

“Pine” is a short story from a collection called If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This published 2010, written by Robin Black. This is a wonderful example of a contemporary story loosely based on an old fairytale—this time it’s Bluebeard.

“Pine” is also an excellent example of a story which centres a homophone in which several of its meanings have been extracted for narrative purposes: Pine as in wood and pine as in longing. This serves to unify the story. Importantly, Heidi’s kitchen is NOT made of pine. This would be perhaps too trite and convenient. The narrator thinks the kitchen SHOULD have a pine floor rather than a hard marble one.

Look out for how Robin Black uses the symbol of the beach chair in winter to show that the main character is out of sync with other people’s perception of time.

NARRATION IN “PINE”

“Pine” is written with first person narration. The opening scene describes a kitchen — the kitchen of a woman named Heidi, whose stand-out feature is that she is missing one leg.

THE BLUEBEARD CONNECTION

What is the story function of Heidi? Why does this first section and this character exist?

First, this is the author establishing a pattern: Our main character is an outsider in general, not just with her friend/boyfriend.

Second, the artificial leg is highly symbolic. Our main character feels she has lost a part of herself when she lost her husband. Heidi serves as a contrast character but in a way that’s physically apparent — some people get the emotional equivalent of an artificial limb after bereavement, which means they’re never quite the same but are able to function nonetheless. In contrast, others never manage to get to that point, forever stuck in utter despair because you feel incomplete.

“Did I tell you this is her fourth leg? Her fifth, actually, if you count the first. The original limb.” I reach across and pour us both more wine. “Do you suppose she keeps them all? Do you suppose she has them locked up somewhere? Like Bluebeard’s wives?

Pine, by Robin Black

In the Bluebeard fairytales, a broken man murders a succession of wives. This is a sort of modern, gender-flipped version in which a bereft wife symbolically ‘murders’ her own chance at happiness with (not coincidentally) five people in this story: The three women in the kitchen, who she might otherwise have become friends with, and with Kevin, her friend/boyfriend.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “PINE”

SHORTCOMING

Like the first person narrator, the reader is a visitor in Heidi’s kitchen. Like the narrator we, too, feel left out of the discussion between woman friends who obviously have a long backstory and know each other well. This is a relatable situation — we’ve all been the newcomer at some point. It’s an uncomfortable feeling.

This is the narrator’s initial Shortcoming. Drill one layer deeper — her One Great Shortcoming — the shortcoming that is ruining her life is that she is failing to achieve new and meaningful human connections since her husband died.

Extrapolating from that: The reason she doesn’t want to get close to anyone is because people just up and die on you. Why risk your feelings like that?

The following song was written by an artist whose own mother lost her husband at a young age to an aneurysm in his sleep. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqj8_RdLoJE

(Supposed) Moral Shortcoming: Running hot and cold with the friend/boyfriend while failing to either open herself fully to the idea of a relationship or be clear that it’s never going to happen.

Of course, no one ever owes anyone else a relationship, even if sex has been had. There is another thread to this story which is ripe for discussion. “Pine” is not necessarily a tragedy simply because a woman didn’t get together with a man. Perhaps he just isn’t the right one? Perhaps they were important to each other for a short time, and that time had its upper limit.

This is therefore a story about the Erotics of (Emotional) Abstinence and reminds us that life is short, and that life comprises a series of episodes which have distinct endings, each ending serving to prepare us for our own death.

The following passage reminds me of a technique utilised also by Alice Munro — the inclusion of young women and older women. The reader is encouraged to consider these differently aged characters as one person, only at different stages of her life. An older woman looks at a younger one and sees her younger self gone; alternatively she may look at an older woman and see herself in three decades’ time:

…they call my daughter Ally one day and then Lyssa the next, as though she were their property, to name and claim. As though she no longer belongs to me and only I have not figured that out. Deceptively clothed in bell-bottoms and horizontal stripes, outfits reinvented from my own youth, they are the trumpeters of my daughter’s departure, the harbingers of yet another loss. They are the clock ticking forward with no concern for me.

“Pine” by Robin Black

It’s all to do with creating that sense that time comes for us all and there’s no going back.

Tragically, we never know exactly when those inflection points are going to be, because sometimes, other people end things for us.

DESIRE

Perhaps the narrator wants human connection, but she is sabotaging this wish with her actions. Instead she settles for a mimicry of human connection — visits to the kitchen of a new acquaintance; occasional sex with the friend who wants to become her boyfriend.

OPPONENT

It’s not a level playing field. My foes do not play fair.

“Pine”, Robin Black

Who are the foes? ‘Death and all of its traveling companions’, we are told in the next sentence. However, any given stories needs human opposition who stand in for these existential enemies.

This is an anti-romance, so her main opponent is the man who wants to be her boyfriend. Though they both want the same thing, he’s emotionally able to have it while she is not. So they will remain forever in opposition.

Heidi is also an opponent in this story, and an excellent example of an ‘opponent’ who does nothing whatsoever to deserve that status. Instead, she is the unwitting enemy in the main character’s own psychological struggles. When the narrator says Heidi should have put down a pine floor rather than a hard one, the narrator is really criticising herself for being so emotionally ‘hard and cold’ (like marble). When the narrator says Heidi is in denial, it is the narrator who is actually in denial. This is clear from the second paragraph: “If it were me”. This is the author telling us that Heidi IS ‘me’.

“I almost envy Heidi,” our narrator says, after Heidi’s husband puts her hand on Heidi’s artificial knee, and when it’s clear that Heidi can somehow feel that gesture. In stories about two women, the women often envy each other, craving in another woman what she doesn’t have herself.

PLAN

Keep people at bay. Don’t get too close. Do the bare minimum to ward off utter loneliness.

We have a passive character here, so it’s up to the opponent to create the conflict. This argument they have isn’t exactly planned — rather, the boyfriend seems to snap, and says things he’s been thinking for a while.

BIG STRUGGLE

Sure enough, the boyfriend confronts her at her daughter’s sports match — a symbolic place to have a Battle scene.

ANAGNORISIS

The Opponent is the one who has the Anagnorisis. He realises our main character is not open to a relationship with him, ever. https://youtu.be/rg-3a6Hy-yc

The concept of Main Character is a little problematic in stories like these because normally the very definition of Main Character is ‘the one who changes the most’ ie. the one who has the Anagnorisis. Technically, you could argue the boyfriend is the main character, except we don’t see the setting through his eyes in this particular narrative. Even the title is named after a feeling of Kevin’s:

“I’ll bet he’s secretly pining over you,” [Alyssa] says

NEW SITUATION

This is a rare example of a story in which the main character starts with Slavery, has a chance at Freedom but because of a failure to have any sort of Anagnorisis, returns instead to Slavery.

Another example of this kind of story is The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke. Likewise in that story, the love interest is the one who has the Anagnorisis — Randy’s girlfriend moves on without him.

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If I Loved You by Robin Black Short Story Analysis

book cover of if i loved you i would tell you this by robin black

“If I Loved You” is a short story from a collection called If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (2010), written by American author Robin Black.

A woman dying of cancer writes an imaginary letter to her new neighbour, who has uncharitably built a fence along their boundary line. This fence prevents her from getting conveniently out of her car in the driveway.

Here’s the subtext: this woman’s garage has obviously been built stupidly close to the boundary line, by someone who would never have predicted a future in which a new neighbour would want to build a fence. This is a comment on how we sometimes do things with great optimism. The optimism comes back to bite us later. Instead of optimism, this narrator now goes for ‘maybes’. (This explains the style of narration.)

That surface level plot about the fence offers a fairly didactic message about how we never know what’s going on in someone else’s life, symbolised by the fence itself. We put fences around ourselves to avoid considering other people’s pain.

But the story avoids didacticism because I happen to identify with the neighbour, somewhat. Significantly, this neighbour hasn’t done anything terribly bad. He has simply built a fence along his boundary line. Would you sacrifice a portion of the land you’ve just bought, and which you continue to pay rates on, because a neighbour either built a garage too close to the boundary line, or bought a house without checking the structures conform to council regulation?

MY OWN SIMILAR FENCE STORY

A few years ago our erstwhile neighbours owned three massive dogs — one of them scary and dangerous, and no doubt kept as a guard dog. In summer, with all the windows open, they barked whenever we chopped vegetables in our own kitchen. We needed a solid fence to replace the bamboo screen on wire, which sometimes failed to keep the dogs contained. We had a toddler. I couldn’t let her play outside.

But because the properties are 40m long, we couldn’t justify paying for the entire structure. The council provides forms to fill out when you want a neighbour to pay half of something. We got a quote for a fence, paid a surveyor in full, filled out a form and put it in the neighbours’ letterbox. I was too intimated by the dogs to enter the property and hand-deliver. (Even a police officer knocked on my door one day to ask if the dogs next door were safe.)

Later, the neighbour and I had a bit of a showdown in our kitchen because the neighbour was incensed at receiving such formal notification and insisted he couldn’t pay for any of the fence anyhow. He said we could pay the entire thing if we wanted it. Then he said he was about to move out further to the country anyway. Unsaid at this point: his marriage was breaking down. He had a variety of myalgia which meant he couldn’t work much. He could have written a story like this, had he been a writer, I guess.

Then, in an attempt to regain some power after admitting he could not help out with the fence, no way would he allow anyone to set foot on his property. He wouldn’t keep his dogs inside, either. So that put an end to the fence discussion.

How many of us have a story like that? It’s a highly relatable scenario. Robin Black goes into the psychology of that particular power dynamic, whereby one neighbour wants a fence, the other neighbour does not, so the neighbour in the low-power position wrests what little control they have to forbid anyone step onto their property to actually build it.

POWER AND RATIONALITY

This dynamic plays out in many different ways, even when there are no fences involved — one person loses power, tries to get it back, and takes unexpected action which sounds petty and completely irrational. But these decisions are completely rational when you look at the emotions behind the actions — regaining a sense of control. The same can be said of almost any ‘irrational’ action outside psychosis: Action is driven by emotion.

SUBJUNCTIVE NARRATION OF “IF I LOVED YOU”

The style of narration in “If I Loved You” is very interesting and I’ll do my best to describe it using words which probably aren’t the academic words.

First, the opening paragraph so you know what I’m talking about:

If I loved you, I would tell you this.

I would tell you that for all you know I have cancer. And that is why you should be kind to me. I would tell you that for all you know I have cancer that has spread into my liver and my bones and that now I understand there is no hope. If I loved you, I would say: you shouldn’t be so hard on me. On me and on Sam.

We don’t yet know who this character is talking to. We don’t know if she really has cancer, or if it has really spread. At this point, for all we know, she is a fantasist, or making a point about lack of empathy.

The best phrase I have to describe this style of narration is ‘subjunctive mood‘. If you’ve ever studied Spanish grammar you’ll know exactly what this means — it’s one of the more difficult aspects to master for English speakers because we don’t make much of a distinction in English, and where I come from, some uses are dying out. One day in the early 2000s, while teaching high school in New Zealand, I wrote a sentence on the whiteboard which included the phrase ‘if I were’. A fourteen-year-old put up her hand to tell me I’d gotten my grammar wrong. It should have been ‘if I was’, according to her, and the subjunctive use of ‘were’ (with its emphasis on the hypothetical, overriding the more frequent plural usage) sounded dead wrong to her. I found this language shift fascinating, but felt we were losing something in English if we completely lost modal verb distinctions between subjunctive and indicative mood. But are we really losing anything?

If the subjunctive mood can describe a sentence, perhaps it can describe an entire passage in a story. “If I Loved You” has a subjunctive title and continues from there.

Why this narrative style? I can think of several reasons.

  1. The story itself achieves some of its narrative drive by presenting information in a ‘is this true or not?’ kind of way, then keeping the ‘yep, it’s all true’ as reveals for the reader. This only works a few times, of course, after which the reader has been trained in the particular narrative style of the piece — though the narrator offers info that sounds like it may or may not be true, it is true. All of it ends up being true, assuming reliable narration. (And yeah, no narrator is 100% reliable.)
  2. But she’s having trouble saying all this. We learn a lot about the narrator’s psychology. She has a tendency to imagine how different things might have been. (I think this is common to most of us.) This is hardly a recipe for happiness, but it is also one way of coping with impending death. Maybe, some days, she can almost persuade herself that she’s not going to die of cancer at all. She is suspending herself in this permanent subjunctive mood. Some might call it ‘living in the moment’.
  3. It’s a more interesting way of presenting backstory. Basically, the first page explains to the reader that the narrator has cancer, the nature of the cancer, the backstory of the son. Normally writers are advised not to ‘infodump’ in the opening of a story because it supposedly bores the reader. But this story is an example of an exception to that rule and provides evidence of my preferred maxim — boring passages bore the reader. This is perhaps slightly boring information but its unusual presentation keeps our mind engaged. (“Is this person telling the truth, or not?”)
  4. The ‘what if’ feeling connects directly to one of the Anagnorisiss. (See below.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF “IF I LOVED YOU”

“If I Loved You” is not a linear story — it’s a circular one which curls back onto itself offering deeper insights each time.

Part One is the story of the neighbour and the fence. There’s no epiphany in this one — just a mulling over of ideas.

Part Two is backstory about the cancer, and we are ready for more of that now, because we’re wondering who these people are. A character epiphany and a reader one.

Part Three is set two months after the fence went up and the narrator is closer to death.

Each part is a complete story in its own right, though I have fudged that a little below.

Jane Alison calls these plots Cumulative. For another story with a cumulative plot, though more exaggerated, see “The Fifth Story” by Clarice Lispector.

I’m also reminded of “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro. Both short stories are about women dying of cancer. Both contain a fantasy sequence and the reader is left to figure out how much of it is ‘real’ within the setting.

SHORTCOMING

The narrator is in a very weak position. She is dying of cancer. She has a son who causes her physical harm.

Her only real strength is the fact she’s in a long-term, good marriage.

Something happens to her psychology as the story progresses and it’s not great. Though the word has been devalued from overuse, she’s starting to develop a bit of an ‘obsession’ with this neighbour. I’m thinking of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Rear Window in which a man with a broken leg notices things happening to his neighbours because he’s laid up with nothing else to do. (A scenario which probably no longer works in the age of smart phone ubiquity.) Interestingly, Rear Window is based on a short story.

I know that you go to work a little after [Sam] leaves—I hear the car door, the ignition. I know the hours you keep, can predict when you’ll come home…

Rear Window film poster

DESIRE

To be able to get back into her own house after her medical appointments.

Also, it would be nice if people could empathise with others. Perhaps she would like to change the world for the better. The following paragraph says a lot about the wish to be seen.

I want to scold you in the harsh, caressing tones of a mother to a child. I want to help you, make you understand more about the way things should be than you do, make you think more, give you some imagination. I want you to imagine that I have a life. A life that matters. You should care about my life.

There’s a human tendency to look away from old age and death. This was perhaps worse in earlier eras, when life was harder in general and if you didn’t earn your keep you were literally causing your people extra work. Look at German fairytales (the ones seldom found in children’s collections) and you’ll find a lot of old women ‘behind the stove’. They were shoved away and forgotten.

In medieval times, if you wanted to get rid of your elderly person you might open the window for them as they lay in their bed, because that way the soul can easily escape. (More scientifically, they may also catch a cold which leads to pneumonia.)

OPPONENT

There’s a conversation that hasn’t been had, I tell Sam. The conversation human beings have with each other. He isn’t quite treating us like people.

He isn’t quite a person, Sam says. He’s a creature. He’s an animal himself. He’s like a yeti or something.

From this point on, Sam and the narrator privately refer to their neighbour as The Yeti. This is a counterstrike — he seems to have dehumanised them, so they’ll do the same back, by way of coping.

Cancer is also an opponent,  of course. And the son who can’t control his violence. In this story, as in many others, you can plot opposition on a gradient from ‘natural and uncontrollable’ to ‘plotting, scheming, controllable’. (Only the latter kind of opposition is interesting to read about.)

PLAN

In her weakened position the narrator can do nothing. Her husband tries to reason, then they play out the petty fantasy of painting a wet red line and shooting the legs off builders who cross it.

Precisely because there is no plan of action, the act of writing this down is a plan in itself — first person storytellers are often achieving some sort of psychological resolution through the act of writing their frustrations down.

BIG STRUGGLE

Part Two, the cancer, the son, is the main Battle. In some ways, the neighbour and his fence is a proxy.

I heard someone say the other day that their health is failing terribly and now they have to deal with some annoying paperwork to do with electricity and overbilling. They don’t have the strength to deal with it. Someone else commented that exactly that sort of challenge can function as a good diversion when going through a difficult time. In short, people can respond in various ways to problem heaped upon problem.

ANAGNORISIS

The following sums up the author’s feelings towards anagnorises in fiction. She’s talking about an epiphany she had one day about her long-standing relationship with her husband:

I’m a fiction writer by trade, and these days the sort of epiphanies where characters suddenly understand what their problem has been all along are out of style. It seems so contrived, so unlikely. But the bar for plausibility is higher in fiction than in fact. Real life can be, often is, implausible — yet true.

from Robin Black’s description of her AD/HD at the Chicago Tribune

In line with this view of story, which isn’t all that new, by the way — Katherine Mansfield wrote her last stories in this realistic style sans anagnorisis — Robin Black offers us ideas that Sam and the narrator turn over between them with no resolution.

This is a method used by YouTube philosopher Natalie Wynn. She explains all this in her XOXO talk, including her reasons for doing so. In making a point she sets up fictional characters who each argue a different side.

The same is done here, with two characters — a husband and a wife — talking through the nature of ‘bad people’, turning over the etiology of this guy’s decision — is he born bad or did something bad happen to him to make him this way? This (non) epiphany concludes part one of the short story.

In Part Two, though, we do have a genuine Anagnorisis. The narrator has always hoped that her disabled son knows who she is. But now she’s about to die, she hopes the opposite. She wishes her son be more like the uncaring neighbour because life seems easier that way.

The best character epiphanies are accompanied by a separate epiphany for the reader. We realise part of the reason for the subjunctive mood of this story. We realise why this mother thinks in ‘what ifs’:

My son is eighteen years old. His head is covered with thick black curls like my own used to be and his eyes are the same bright blue as Sam’s. He would have been a very handsome man. He would have been something wonderful. I’m convinced. But for the travels of a blood clot to his brain, while he burrowed small and silenced in my womb.

This paragraph is given the powerful position as last in Part Two. We are encouraged to pause on it.

By Part Three, the narrator’s relationship to time has changed.

The clock has lost its meaning. My relationship with time is more personal now.

Since time is rendered irrelevant, perhaps any distinction between reality versus fantasy can be rendered irrelevant, adding yet more weight to the subjunctive mood of this story.

What if? When? Who cares?

NEW SITUATION

“If I Loved You” ends with sideshadowing, although we could say this entire story is a sideshadow — an imaginary version of how things might be different.

I sometimes think that when I’m gone Sam will drive the car right into your well-constructed fence. I can picture it so easily: Sam behind the wheel pulling up into the drive, gunning it; and veering left. If the tables were turned, there’s no doubt it’s what I’d do.

That paragraph forms the Battle scene of Part Three (wholly imagined), and is swiftly followed by the final Anagnorisis:

Because who is there left to be angry at? Except you? We used up all the other obvious candidates long ago.

The Symbolism of Trains In Literature

George William Joy - The Baywater Omnibus 1895

Why are trains so useful to storytellers? In stories, trains play a functional role, getting your characters from one place to another. But there’s more to it than that. Perhaps we encounter storytellers on trains more than in any other place.

On Trains You Lose Your Regular Self

The train is a perfect place to pretend to be a different person. He said he was French. He was on his way to work on his Ph.D. in Art History in San Antonio. He had grim opinions on organized religion. He could have been flirting with me, but more likely he was just bored.

Secrets of the New York City Subway

The Train As Heterotopia

Restored vintage travel poster Express Ease - The Harrogate Pullman by George Harrison, England. Published in the 1920s
Restored vintage travel poster Express Ease – The Harrogate Pullman by George Harrison, England. Published in the 1920s
Jean-Raoul Naurac (1878-1932) poster art 1927
Jean-Raoul Naurac (1878-1932) poster art 1927

Trains are an example of a heterotopia. For more on that see this post. French philosopher Michael Foucault had quite a bit to say about trains:

A train is an extraordinary bundle of relations because [1] it is something through which one goes, it is also something by means of which [2] one can go from one point to another, and then it is also [3] something that goes by.

Foucault

Some modern kids might not know what’s going on in the painting below, partly because children are more supervised these days and mostly advised against playing around train tracks.

The Three Pennies by Rob Rowland
The Three Pennies by Rob Rowland
Train track in Tokyo Drifter
Train track in Tokyo Drifter

Trains Are Masculine-coded Spaces

Modern audiences are unlikely to feel this way, but trains initially excluded women.

Genevieve Bell, anthropologist and director of Intel Corporation’s Interaction and Experience Research, says the burgeoning use of the steam engine in the early 19th century incited an unusual panic. Some “experts” believed that women’s bodies weren’t fit to travel at 50 mph. “They thought that our uteruses would fly out of our bodies as the train accelerated to that speed,” says Bell.

Women’s Day
Augustus Leopold Egg – The Travelling Companions 1862

Trains Are Multi-layered, Liminal Spaces

Multi-layered places and objects are especially useful for creating a symbol web. Take any word which means two different things at once; or a tree, which can be covered in leaves or bare; or a sea, which has a surface and also great depth; blackberries, which are delicious but also a pest; the colour yellow, which means happiness but also decay… You get the picture. As Foucault mentions above, trains are great, symbolically, because the audience has not only two but THREE different relationships with trains.

Epiphanies Happen On Trains

Trains have a special position outside other forms of public transport. It’s no accident that Neal of Planes, Trains and Automobiles has his epiphany while riding a train. Compared to planes and automobiles, trains provide a meditative calm.

Neal has his epiphany on a train

This is why here in Australia, The Indian Pacific: Australia’s Longest Train Journey proved such a hit for SBS, and led to a flurry of train bookings from enthusiastic viewers. The show is 3 hours of footage out a train window.

In her 2014 film Appropriate Behaviour, Desiree Akhaven bookends the story of a young woman trying to get over a recent breakup with scenes on a train. It is difficult to show epiphanies on screen. A lot relies on the skill of the actor, but the setting also helps. The train journey shows that the main character is ‘moving on’, but emotionally.

Trains As Metaphor For Passing Time

Lior’s song below is a love song, assuring the object of affection that “We’ll grow old together.” Lior also tells us that “time moves like a train”.

In fact, time moves nothing like a train. That is simply our human experience of it. For more on that read The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene.

Symbolically, we think of rivers in the same way we think of trains. When it comes to love and fate, it seems we like to think time moves forward in one inevitable line, and that our lives will look just like that long, smooth, uninterrupted train track that lies ahead.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

For cynical twenty-three-year-old August, moving to New York City is supposed to prove her right: that things like magic and cinematic love stories don’t exist, and the only smart way to go through life is alone. She can’t imagine how waiting tables at a 24-hour pancake diner and moving in with too many weird roommates could possibly change that. And there’s certainly no chance of her subway commute being anything more than a daily trudge through boredom and electrical failures.

But then, there’s this gorgeous girl on the train.

Included in this symbolism: The idea that the past is the past, and it’s time to let the past go.

A train has a poor memory: it soon puts all behind it.

Ray Bradbury, “The Lake”.

The classic poster art illustration below is from a time when three competing technologies of rail transport served as clear reminders of the rate of human progress. The artist Leslie Ragan juxtaposes human technology against nature’s beauty.

Leslie Ragan, likely commissioned by the New York Central Line c.1930
Leslie Ragan, likely commissioned by the New York Central Line c.1930
The 20th Century Limited passenger train
The 20th Century Limited passenger train
Illustration of the Pacemaker, identiable partly due to the Art Deco cowling by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss
Illustration of the Pacemaker, identiable partly due to the Art Deco cowling by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss
SNCF Class 232 painting by Émile André Schefer  (1896–1942)
SNCF Class 232 painting by Émile André Schefer (1896–1942)

Trains In Utopian Fantasy For Children

Trains have been hugely important in children’s literature in particular.

Train from The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
Train from The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

Train journeys occur at initiatory or climactic moments of large numbers of classic children’s utopian fantasies; in these journeys, the railway functions as a protean, paradoxical space, not merely instrumental but instead active. Long after it vanished from the landscapes of the real world as a functional means of transport, the steam train in particular continues to feature in works of fantasy aimed at children, operating by laws often unlike those of the realms through which it passes, and providing a space for the dramatisation of spiritual and emotional adventure. […] Railway journeys serve an important role within the metaphorical as well as the narrative economy of utopian texts; this role is sometimes a subversive one, and ultimately calls into question the relationship of reader to text.

Railway trains in utopian fantasy literature operate like alternative worlds, allowing space and time within the narrative for establishment, subversion, and clashing of the logics and values of the other realms of the text. In this way they can be described in terms of Foucault’s well-known formulation of “heterotopia“. […]

Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults, edited by Carrie Hintz, Elaine Ostry
In The Train with Uncle Mac a Ladybird Book illustrated by WC Watson
In The Train with Uncle Mac a Ladybird Book illustrated by WC Watson

Train Stations As Beginnings and Endings (Hellos and Goodbyes)

Julius Ussy Engelhard (1883-1964)
Julius Ussy Engelhard (1883-1964)
Matthew’s moral dilemma: Does he take home this girl when he and his sister really needed a boy?

The train station as a place of beginnings and endings is seen in many stories. One especially memorable train station for me is that depicted in Anne of Green Gables.

For a younger generation of readers, it is often the train of Harry Potter which resonates.

The train station platform functions identically to the bus station platform. You can probably think of many resonant scenes set in train and bus stations. A bus station marks the end of a student-teacher relationship in Mr Holland’s Opus. A bus station makes the end of a housekeeper’s employ with a problematic man in Hud. There is also the strong feeling of regret at what could have been in another parallel life. Symbolically, these platforms are functioning as crossroads.

Another resonant parting of ways (largely inaccessible to young viewers because of its uniquely adult emotion — regret with no hope) is the train station scene in Remains of the Day.

That sense of the ‘parallel’, imagined life that could have been is perhaps why trains (and express service buses, which travel along their own invisible, pre-laid tracks) lend themselves to well to stories in which we’re encouraged to consider fate, and our own hand in it.

Angela Barrett’s Illustration from ‘Anna Karenina’ novel by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
Angela Barrett’s Illustration from ‘Anna Karenina’ novel by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

Trains As Temporary Home

Russian illustrator Anna Desnitskaya
Russian illustrator Anna Desnitskaya

Ghost Trains

Like motels, trains are a little bit like home, but not your home. They therefore fall into the uncanny valley of home, and we can’t help but think of all the other people who have been in our seat before us and after us.

Jupiter Jones, Bob Andrews and Pete Crenshaw win a radio contest for tickets on The Ghost Train, a passenger train traveling from Los Angeles to New Orleans over a 6 day period with a promise that passengers will “see the ghosts of the dead men found in the locomotive!”. As it is summer, they get permission to travel unaccompanied just as long as they agree to obey the train personnel.

The trip begins inauspiciously with a badly-performed disappearance of the rear locomotive, and seems to go downhill for the boys after that.

Trains As Contra-Symbol

The symbolism of a train can be milked any which way by a storyteller. The train can feel at once oppressive but also afford freedom. The best example of this contradiction in action is perhaps Japan.

Oh to be on a train, travelling to who knows where…

Originally tweeted by Ghibliotheque – A Podcast About Studio Ghibli (@ghibliotheque) on May 12, 2020.

Trains are a huge part of Japanese life and are also a huge part of Japanese storytelling, perhaps especially in manga culture. Japan is famous (infamous?) for its pushers, but pushers also existed in New York:

In the early 20th century, New York subways actually had attendants, colloquially called “sardine-packers,” to physically cram people in. The Japanese famously employed uniformed, white-gloved “shiri oshi” — meaning “tushy pushers” — to do the same during rush hour. A pusher in Tokyo told The Times in 1995, “If their back is toward us, it’s easier, but if they’re facing us, it’s harder because there’s no proper spot to push them, though we try to push their bags or something else they are holding. In any case, we always first say, ‘We will push you.’” Once the trains left the station, the attendants used long, hooked poles to recover shoes and other items that had fallen on the track. Said another pusher, back in 1964, “I really wonder how so many of those girls manage to go to work with one shoe.”

NYT

Trains are thereby seen as oppressive, but also afford Japanese children a freedom Western children rarely have — the train network is so reliable, so crowded and easily navigated that children are often trusted to ride trains without adult caregivers in a way I wouldn’t see here in Australia.

For passengers inside, trains are a safe form of travel. But in Japanese towns and suburbs, trains travel regularly across your path, and you must stop at the gate and the lights. The threat of death is near. All you’d need to do is disobey the signs.

This low-level fear is utilised in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. The way a train hurtles unstoppably forward is at symbolic odds with the fact that, should you stand in front of it, your life comes to an immediate halt. Symbolically, you’ve now got this juxtaposition between how an individual’s life ends suddenly but the world continues on.

The image of the body tied to a train track reminds us that trains are in fact dangerous, if you’re near the tracks. When characters walk down the tracks our blood pressure rises a little. The audience doesn’t know when a train is about to turn up.

The trailer of  5 Centimeters Per Second shows us that almost the entire film (comprising 5 interconnected short stories) takes place in trains and train stations.

Trains As Dangerous Monsters

Illustration by Italian artist Waltz Molina (1915-1997).

Sometimes trains seem like dangerous monsters because they travel above us, on elevated tracks.

John Sloan, Six O'Clock, Winter (The Third Avenue “El”), 1912 train
John Sloan, Six O’Clock, Winter (The Third Avenue “El”), 1912 train
The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman cover
In The Train with Uncle Mac a Ladybird Book illustrated by WC Watson archway
In The Train with Uncle Mac a Ladybird Book illustrated by WC Watson archway

But trains can also feel menacing and ominous when we see them from worm’s eye view.

Take Me To the Flying Scotsman leaves King's Cross at 10 am every weekday
Newell Convers Wyeth (October 22, 1882 – October 19, 1945), known as N. C. Wyeth, was an American artist and illustrator. He was the pupil of artist Howard Pyle. He was killed with his grandchild while crossing a train track
Newell Convers Wyeth (October 22, 1882 – October 19, 1945), known as N. C. Wyeth, was an American artist and illustrator. He was the pupil of artist Howard Pyle. He was killed with his grandchild while crossing a train track.

For passengers, trains are one of the safer forms of transport. But trains pose a danger for anyone crossing their path. Like a mechanical horror monster who just won’t stop, a train literally can’t stop at short notice.

The New Yorker Magazine - December 17, 1955. Art by Arthur Getz . This image subverts the idea of trains as powerful by mixing a 'power shot' with images of children in the background, miniaturising this powerful engine.
The New Yorker Magazine – December 17, 1955. Art by Arthur Getz . This image subverts the idea of trains as powerful by mixing a ‘power shot’ with images of children in the background, miniaturising this powerful engine.

Trains As Loneliness, Though Surrounded By People

The worst kind of loneliness is when you’re surrounded by people. On a crowded train, etiquette dictates we avoid others’ gaze, don’t speak unless necessary.

Cartoon by Saul Steinberg

Trains Are Fast

Contemporary travellers won’t associate trains with speed. The bullet trains in Japan are pretty fast, but planes are always faster. Earlier audiences didn’t feel this way about trains at all. For them, over a fairly brief period of human history, trains were the epitome of speed.

The 1923 advertisement below is selling a super-fast Olivetti typewriter by comparing it to the speed of a train.

Nikolai Zhukov, 1937 Shepetovka-Baku in 55 hours
Nikolai Zhukov, 1937 Shepetovka-Baku in 55 hours

Trains As Symbols of Socioeconomic Class

There’s no better modern example of a train used to highlight social inequality than Snowpiercer, first a film, now a TV show.

Apart from trains, other forms of public transport push rich and poor people together onto the same small vessel, most notably planes and ships. This turns the vehicle of transportation into a microcosm of society.

Rapid transit to Sheol--where we are all going, according to the Reverend Dr. Morgan Dix (1888)
Rapid transit to Sheol–where we are all going, according to the Reverend Dr. Morgan Dix (1888). This “Sheolic Motors” train has special cars for lawyers, journalists, clergy, artists, theater people, literary people, members of “sassiety”, and even the “Dem. & Rep. combine”. There are “no return tickets”.
MIND THE GAP

In Western Australia a man managed to get stuck in the gap. There was a happy ending — he was freed after about 15 minutes, without injury. If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t really think about all those echoey announcements warning us to mind the gap, and you may have even peered at the gap at one point, wondering how anyone could possibly get their foot stuck down there, except for maybe a toddler.

Public Transport Authority spokesman David Hynes … it was an impressive feat because the gap between the train and platform was less than five centimetres.

Warnings to ‘Mind The Gap’ are so well-known that the phrase is used metaphorically to refer to other things.

In my own story Hilda Bewildered, the signs warning ‘Mind The Gap’ refer equally to income inequalities.

This is not an original metaphor. Scientific American has used it, for instance, as have many others.

Do you know how this ‘Mind The Gap’ warning is announced in other languages around the world? Wikipedia has a list of translations.

Can you think of any other phrases like this which have become part of popular culture, commonly used to refer to other things? Wikipedia offers ‘Objects in mirror are closer than they appear’ as another example.

How many of these do you recognise?

Trains as Symbols of Expansion Into The American West

Ships are metonyms for England in stories about colonisation. Trains work similarly.

This poster is English, but trains were a necessary tool of American expansionism into the American West.

Trains As Symbols Of The City

Cover by Brugo, 1928 train city
Cover by Brugo, 1928 train city

Trains and the subway system are often central city images with multiple meanings in children’s literature. In Holman’s Slake’s Limbo, the New York subway becomes a metaphor for escape and freedom. We are told early in the novel “Aremis Slake had often escaped into the subway when things got rough above ground. He kept a subway token in his pocket for just that emergency”. Moreover, the subway takes on a greater magical force or power related to Slake’s personal choices and destiny, rather than merely a means of transit: “Slake with the instinct of other migratory creatures flew from the train at Seventy-Seventh Street and Lexington Avenue. This was an unusual move in itself; Slake usually exited only at transfer points”. Comparatively, in Robert Munsch’s picture book Jonathan Cleaned Up-Then He Heard a Sound, illustrated by Michael Martchenko, the mysteries of the city’s subway are perceived in a fantastical and absurd manner when young Jonathan’s living room becomes a subway station. It is an ordinary day at home when suddenly the living room wall opens up, a subway train pulls up and “all kinds of people came out of Jonathan’s wall, ran around his apartment and out the front door.” A mission down to City Hall leads Jonathan to find (in a moment reminiscent of Dorothy finding the “great and powerful Oz” behind the curtain) a little old man, who craves blackberry jam, behind a huge machine that apparently runs the city. He tells Jonathan that because the computer is broken, he does “everything for the whole city”. The story hilariously concludes with an illustration depicting the subway rerouted to stop at the Mayor’s office instead. Through Jonathan’s imaginative perspective, the behind-the-scenes controls of the city are in a realm as mysterious, fantastical or absurd as a mad tea party in Wonderland.

Naomi Hamer
Martin Lewis (1881-1962) 1949 Late Traveler
Martin Lewis (1881-1962) 1949 Late Traveler. The subway entrance can serve as a metaphorical cave entrance.

Case Study: Trains in Katherine Mansfield Short Stories

You’ll find the most dense symbolism in lyrical short stories, so let’s take a closer look at some stand-out examples.

In her paper on Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Escape“, Masami Sato has this to say about train symbolism, in which every aspect of the train is ripe for close-reading, including the doors (open or closed?), the rails on the balcony, and the carriage shared with others:

Using trains symbolically is a technique found frequently in literary history. It has been used as a place where people accidentally meet, separate, take time to think, work on something, and even as a place of rest and relaxation. We can see some of this symbolism in the last paragraph of “The Escape”.

The door of the carriage seems to refer to the threshold, or border, between the wife’s world and the husband’s heavenly (maybe, by implication, his ideal) world. The door is open, which denotes that he is still connected with his wife’s world, even though he does not want to be completely submerged in it. However, since he is holding on tightly to the brass rail with both hands, this could possibly signify his effort in trying to cling to his sense of happiness, having escaped, if only momentarily, the space which is dominated by his turbulent relationship with his wife.

The train carriage, for the wife, could be seen as a place to relax: as mentioned before, the wife is talking contentedly with the other passengers, while the husband is absorbed in his solitary emotions of happiness, apart from her, in the corridor. Their juxtaposition refers to two different worlds, and suggests that from a gender point of view, the worlds of men and women do not cohere seamlessly.

The story began with the couple missing their train and ends with a scene on a train. I would suggest that Mansfield intentionally uses the symbol of the train journey at the beginning of the narrative to demonstrate the emotional gulf between the husband and wife, a state which is shown to be highlighted if they spend time in too close proximity to each other. In the story’s ending, Mansfield suggests, by their positions in the separate (yet adjoining spaces) of the train compartment and the corridor, that perhaps, in a marriage, a certain amount of distance between individuals is more comfortable for both of them.

Katherine Mansfield’s Portrayal of Marriage In “The Escape”

Another story, “Something Childish But Very Natural” is an excellent example of how the movement of a train is symbolically representative of fate.

The train of “Something Childish” is both a motif and a setting. I’ve written before about the symbolism of trains. Alice Munro is another short story writer who likes to make heavy symbolic use of them. Trains are interesting as an example of heterotopia — an ‘other’ space, separate from the regular world. To enter into a heterotopia is akin to going through a fantasy portal (even when the story is not speculative in nature).

Trains are the perfect fatalistic symbol; there’s only one path for a train — its pre-laid tracks. A fatalistic view of the world means you’re all about destiny, and subscription to the idea that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do.

The trains of “Something Childish But Very Natural are also useful for symbolising the iterative nature of our daily lives — trains basically do the same things every single day, turning up at the same places at the same times. This gives a sort of Groundhog Day vibe to a story, before an author switches readers to the singulative (but on this particular day…)

Trains and tunnels go together.

MEMORIES OF MURDER BONG JOON-HO (2003) tunnel
MEMORIES OF MURDER BONG JOON-HO (2003). See also: The Symbolism of Tunnels.

Something Childish But Very Natural” is also an excellent example of how tunnels are used symbolically. Two young lovers ride a train, falling more and more in love as their journey progresses. But their dreams of love are punctuated by tunnels, foreshadowing the darkness of their emotions at story’s end.

Also in “Something Childish But Very Natural”, Mansfield matches Henry’s excited, elevated heart rate to the sounds of the train moving over the tracks. She describes how the train smells — wet india-rubber and soot. We really do feel transported to the era of steam engines.

Case Study: Trains In Alice Munro Short Stories

Alice Munro has also written short stories which take place on trains, one of my favourites being “Chance”.

Free Radicals” is another interesting example.

What about the train thread in this story? First, the sexe en plein air near the tracks, between Nita and Rich. Later, the train reappears and now it is a symbol of fate.

“You wait till I say. I walked the railway track. Never seen a train. I walked all the way to here and never seen a train.”
“There’s hardly ever a train.”

The train track itself led the murderer to Nita’s house. There was nothing she could do to stop him. This fate was set in place the moment she started the affair with Rich. (And even that was probably fate.)

Case Study: Trains in a Robin Black Short Story

The following is the opening paragraph from”A Country Where You Once Lived” by Robin Black. It demonstrates perfectly the way in which trains signify the passage of time. Notice, too, how Black is saying something about ‘train window scenery’ as well:

It isn’t even a two-hour train ride out from London tot he village where Jeremy’s daughter and her husband—a man Jeremy has never met—have lived for the past three years, but it’s one of those trips that seems to carry you much father than the time might imply. By around the halfway point the scenery has shaken ff all evidence of the city, all evidence, really, of the past century or two. […] It’s a fantasy landscape, he thinks. The kind that encourages belief in the myth of uncomplicated lives.

Robin Black
Virginia Lee Burton's futurism-inspired illustration for Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel
Virginia Lee Burton’s futurism-inspired illustration for Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel
Frederick Cayley Robinson (British, 1862 - 1927) inside a train
Frederick Cayley Robinson (British, 1862 – 1927) inside a train
Jugend magazine, 1927 train
Jugend magazine, 1927

Trains as Portal To Luxury

Alphonse Mucha Pyrenees train poster 1895 Art Nouveau
Alphonse Mucha Pyrenees train poster 1895 Art Nouveau
There’s no subtly to this. “If you’re rich, you can afford to buy more space and a more luxurious travelling experience, away from the plebs.”

Symbols of Perseverance

We tend to personify vehicles, so the sight of a heavy train making its way up a hill can be a gratifying sight.

Richard Scarry's Best Story Book Ever, Richard Scarry, 1970 Hamlyn, Third Impression 1972 train uphill
Richard Scarry’s Best Story Book Ever, Richard Scarry, 1970 Hamlyn, Third Impression 1972

The standout picture book example of a train trying its best is The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper.

The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper cover
The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper, with the repeated phrase of “I think I can! I think I can!”
Tootle Little Golden Book
Tootle Little Golden Book

A Train Bisects A Town

Train carriages themselves divide passengers by socioeconomic status.

Also, the English language idiom ‘wrong side of the tracks‘ describes the part of town that is not inhabited by the wealthy; an area where the working class, poor or extremely poor live. 

Lewitt-Him, 1942
Lewitt-Him, 1942
Hungarian-American designer illustrator Ilonka Karasz (1896 - 1981)
Hungarian-American designer illustrator Ilonka Karasz (1896 – 1981)

Even when the socioeconomic division is not implied, a railway line does function as a noisy, dangerous (but necessary) presence which runs through town, bringing inhabitants to a standstill whenever it rumbles through.

Illustration by Kawakami Shiro ( 川上四郎 絵) forKodomo no kuni (Children's Land), c1920s and 30s train miniature
Illustration by Kawakami Shiro ( 川上四郎 絵) forKodomo no kuni (Children’s Land), c1920s and 30s. Here we have a miniature version.

The Train Unites and Divides Families and Lovers

Poster Art 1934 Sydexpressen (Danish Film)

Trains As Setting For A Crime Story

Murder On The Orient Express by Agatha Christie is a standout example. Trains make good settings for murder mysteries for a number of reasons. The game Cluedo works with the same advantage: a limited set of suspects. This is called a locked-room mystery.

The “lockedroom” or “impossible crime” mystery is a subgenre of detective fiction in which a crime (almost always murder) is committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene.

Locked Room Mystery, Wikipedia

With a train we also have a ticking clock device, because the train will eventually reach its destination and the murderer will then have the opportunity to walk away free.

In The Highland Falcon Thief: Adventures on Trains #1, a middle-grade series starter from MG Leonard and Sam Sedgman, a young boy is swept up in an investigation to uncover the perpetrator of a jewel theft.

When eleven-year-old Harrison Hal Beck is forced to accompany his travel-writer uncle on the last journey of a royal train, he expects a boring trip spent away from video games and children his age.

But then Hal spots a girl who should not be on board, and he quickly makes friends with the stowaway, Lenny. Things get even more interesting when the royal prince and princess board for the last leg of the journey–because the princess’s diamond necklace is soon stolen and replaced with a fake! Suspicion falls on the one person who isn’t supposed to be there: Lenny.

It’s up to Hal, his keen observation, and his skill as a budding sketch artist to uncover the real jewel thief, clear his friend’s name, and return the diamond necklace before The Highland Falcon makes its last stop.

In this second book of the middle-grade Adventures on Trains series, amateur sleuth Hal Beck travels to the U.S. with his uncle to ride a famous train—the California Comet—and stumbles on a new mystery to solve, in M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman’s Kidnap on the California Comet…

After his adventure on the Highland Falcon, amateur sleuth Hal Beck is excited to embark on another journey with his journalist uncle. This time, they’re set to ride the historic California Comet from Chicago to San Francisco.

Hal mostly keeps to himself on the trip, feeling homesick and out of place in America. But he soon finds himself drawn into another mystery when the young daughter of a billionaire tech entrepreneur goes missing!

Along with new friends—spunky 13-year-old Mason and his younger sister, Hadley—Hal races against the clock to find the missing girl before the California Comet reaches its final destination.

Join Hal and Uncle Nat as they plunge straight into an exciting mystery – this time while on Safari!

All-aboard for the third amazing journey in the bestselling Adventures on Trains series from M. G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman, illustrated throughout by Elisa Paganelli.

Uncle Nat is taking Hal on the journey of a lifetime – on a Safari Train from Pretoria to Victoria Falls. Drawing Africa’s amazing wild animals from on board a spectacular steam train described as a luxury hotel on wheels, should be enough excitement for anyone. But something suspicious is happening on board the Safari Star and when a passenger is found mysteriously killed inside a locked compartment, it’s up to Hal, along with his new friend Winston and his pet Mongoose, Chipo, to solve the murder mystery.

RAILWAY SYMBOLISM

A railway is like an iceberg, you know: very little of its working is visible to the casual onlooker.

Robert Aickman, from “The Trains”, a horror short story

The illustrations below are less-seen perspectives of railway tracks, defamiliarising the train for us, offering a worm’s eye view perspective.

1939 November, cover by Frederick Chance train
1939 November, cover by Frederick Chance
1939 May, cover by John O'Hara Cosgrave
1939 May, cover by John O’Hara Cosgrave
Adolphe Mouron Cassandre 1901-1968 Nord Express train
Adolphe Mouron Cassandre 1901-1968 Nord Express train
HEAT, MICHAEL MANN (1995)
HEAT, MICHAEL MANN (1995)

The Ticking Clock is a tool often used by storytellers to add narrative drive. Anytime characters venture near railway tracks our heartrate increases as we know (or suspect) a train will be coming along soon.

Frederick Dorr Steele for American version of The Adventure Of The Bruce-Partington Plans by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1908)
Frederick Dorr Steele for American version of The Adventure Of The Bruce-Partington Plans by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1908)
The Railway Children E Nesbit Faber Classics
The Railway Children E Nesbit Faber Classics

Trains And The Miniature

Humans love to mess around with size and scale.

We also love to create miniature versions of the things important to us. Model trains have long been associated with boyhood.

Andrew Scott Eidson model trains
Andrew Scott Eidson model trains

OVERVIEW OF TRAIN SYMBOLISM IN STORIES

by Perry Barlow (1892-1977) 1940 train
by Perry Barlow (1892-1977) 1940
  • When characters meet someone on a train they could so easily not have met them. This makes any encounter seem serendipitous.
  • This connects to a fatalistic view of the world (and perhaps of love), and the idea that ‘two souls were meant to meet’. The straight line of the tracks is a symbol of fate.
  • Tunnels (which are literally dark) can foreshadow emotional darkness to come.
  • Trains represent how humans experience time even though this is not how time actually works.
  • When we think of time in terms of straight, inevitable lines, we are drawn into a fatalistic view of the universe.
  • Trains are a part of the real world but work differently from the real world. We talk to people we might not otherwise have the chance to talk to. This is what makes them a heterotopia.
  • Trains can stand in for society, conveniently pushing rich and poor together, highlighting the divide.

Header painting: George William Joy – The Baywater Omnibus 1895

FURTHER READING

Lemon girl young adult novella

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